Opinion: Lib Dem communications must improve to capitalise on our successes in government

Lib Dem poll ratings have plummeted. We are not winning some crucial arguments within government. Many of our best councillors have lost their seats. It certainly doesn’t feel good being in this vicious circle.
The answer is not to panic, but equally we shouldn’t stick our heads in the sand either. That means recognising that whilst it’s way too early to say our time in government has been a failure, it’s not too early to say our communications have failed to hit the mark.
Some people think our polling slump is due to people punishing us for forming a coalition with the Tories. The timing of our ratings collapse doesn’t support this though. Remember the Rose Garden press conference and the weeks that followed in the spring of 2010? No one could have been unaware that we were in government with the Tories then. But our polling figures held up throughout the spring and summer and only dropped to the low teens when the narrative of “Lib Dem broken promises” got traction in the autumn of 2010. The lesson from this is that pretending we agree with 100% of government policy is bad communications and counter productive.
Let’s not forget also, our communications failures started during the general election campaign itself. There were points when 30 to 35 per cent of people were going to vote for us, not in mid term, but just days before a general election. That terrified the Tories and the right wing press, so of course they started attacking us. Daily Mail lies about a crazy Lib Dem induced flood of immigrants sucked the life out of our mid campaign poll leads. And what did we do? Nothing. Nothing effective anyway. We simply did not rebut those attacks enough. Admittedly having a “regional quota” policy that took 15 minutes to explain did not help, but a rapid, vigorous and effective rebuttal effort was clearly lacking. Our opponents’ arguments were made, repeated and allowed to stand, and hence they became the “truth” for millions of floating, centrist, common sense voters, who just days before were going to vote for us.
If we thought the attacks on us in April and May 2010 were hard, they will seem like playtime compared to what’s coming in 2015. In fact, the Tory attacks have started already.  They are now starting to say the UK’s lack of growth is due to Lib Dems vetoing their desire for a reduction in workers’ rights. Even George Osborne nodded in this direction on the Andrew Marr Show last week. The problem is the economy could easily still be bumping along the bottom in 2015. Without a massive improvement in our ability to rebut attacks, the Tories will blame us and the voters will believe them.
So how do we cure our communications ills? The answer is we need to rebut, persuade and project.
We must start rebutting all significant attacks on us, quickly and effectively.
We must be much more persuasive with our communications. This means developing messages and then testing them to see which ones can actually persuade people to support us.

I suspect our recent attempts to be seen as simply “different” from the Tories are not enough. Surely we should be trying to improve perceptions of our common sense, honesty and integrity. This would point to fewer off-the-record briefings and more straight forward statements about what we believe in. Simon Hughes belatedly did this last week by admitting that Lib Dems in government didn’t actually want to cut the 50% tax rate, but that on some issues the Tories will get their way.

There is nothing wrong with even our cabinet ministers being this open and clear. We’d surely win plaudits for our honesty, and Labour would find it harder to pin the “liers” label on us. These are all tricky messages to get across though, hence the need to do some real testing with real voters first. I met the late Philip Gould and although I didn’t agree with his politics, he was a formidable man in terms of understanding which messages work with the electorate. Our comms teams could do worse than read some of his work.

Finally, to get those persuasive messages across, we need to hugely up our game in terms of projecting them. Our ministers and spokespeople need to get out into the TV studios far more often, both to rebut attacks on us, and to project those tested and persuasive messages about what we stand for. 

Rebut, persuade and project.  The sooner we start this medicine, the healthier our poll ratings will get, the more influence we’ll have in the Government, and the better our prospects will be for 2015. It will feel a whole lot better being this kind of virtuous circle.

* Simon Rix is the Parliamentary Candidate for ultra-Marginal Truro & Falmouth

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  • A small point in defence of the team during the elections – I think the Cowley and Kavanagh book talks about how many stories the party was having to deal with that never made it into the papers. You can’t judge the success or failure of the rebuttal operation when you don’t know how many stories they may have killed.

    And the best communicators in the world would have struggled to avoid the assault on imigration given the party’s actual policies.

  • Geoffrey Payne 10th May '12 - 12:43pm

    Yes well we can say we do not approve of the tax cut for the rich, but the problem is that the policy got through anyway. Of course we can’t win on every disagreement, but it doesn’t look like much of a coalition if we keep losing. Mansion tax dropped, tax cuts for the rich get through anyway, HoL reform dropped. It seems like the Tory right have more leverage than we do. If so that is the wrong kind of coalition.

  • We can rebut all we like but if the media are owned and controlled by interests hostile to the Lib Dems, then those rebuttals will go unreported or worse, twisted into something unrecogniseable and spat back at us.

    We need to learn the lessons of our local campaigning and apply them to national politics. If we want to communicate what we are about we have to circumvent hostile and partisan media by delivering the message DIRECTLY ourselves, by whatever means possible. The existing method is by leaflet, but new media may also be a starting point.

  • I would also add that most voters have seriously got the hump because their living standards are under pressure and are not in any mood to cut anyone in government any slack. Until real wages start to recover and unemployment declines, we can communicate all we like but most people won’t be listening. It shouldn’t stop us from trying, though, as we need to break out of the corner into which we have been painted by sustained and continual attacks from both left and right wing media, with effectively zero positive mass media coverage.

  • Dan and Matthew, I totally agree – it is also how we say it. But to answer RC’s point, we over focus on newspapers, and are better off going direct to voters – of course leaflets and the web are a part of that, but big shifts in public opinion are done through TV news. So we do need persuasive messages, and we should use our best performers much more on the small screen.

  • Anthony, rebuttal can’t stop the media reporting our detractors’ views. My point is if, once those views are there, we do nothing, voters will think they are true. I’m not naming or shaming anyone, but if we are to improve we have to be able to look back at a huge cock up and see it for what it is. Think how different things would be now had we ended up with 30 odd %. Or even had just beaten Labour into 3rd place. This was a big mistake that had massive consequencs, and we must not shy away from them.

  • Thanks Lon Won. I think you’ve hit the mark there. I was using the “pretending we agree with 100% of government policy” phrase as a slight simplification for brevity – of course the breaking the signed pledge was totally wrong, and probably unnecessary. They probably did it in part to show we were worthy of being in government by being able to make tough choices, but the centrist apolitical millions I mentioned just don’t see it like that. They rightly regard sticking to pledges as very important. I certainly would have done had I been elected.

    I do think though that you over estimate how much a few nods to “differences in priority and emphasis” from us actually gets across. Remember the people who might just vote for us (i.e. those swing, centrists) take little notice of politics, so we will only get something across to them if it’s big, loud, repeated and, more importantly now than ever, consistent.

  • I’m afraid all the rebuttals in the world do not hide hypocrisy. The “No more broken promises” followed swiftly by a broken one was probably beyond the most Machiavellian of spin doctors…

    Just like opposing Ministerial vetoes over FOI in opposition and supporting one in Government.

    Changing position due to facts changing over time is defensible, as long as a decent argument is given. Changing principles is harder especially long held ones, my view is that people are more interested (or at least as interested) in principles as they are policy.

    The worst possible line is the one that I feel we hear most, where we are told if only we understood the details… This was possibly worst used during Tuition fees and the NHS debacle. It’s a bit like telling someone they’re too thick to get it and should just leave to the clever politicians.

  • Steve, I can’t disagree with you. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think it’s ALL about communications. But if our people had thought more about how their actions would look and sound they might have made more of the correct substantive decisions.

  • Richard Dean 10th May '12 - 9:58pm

    Communications are ESSENTIAL – how else can ideas be discussed and tested, and how else can people be persuaded to give support? But opinions and facts can be framed to create many different impressions, so we need to have control (or at least expertise) in framing – which I imagine is what cynics call spin.

  • ‘Are there any decent tabloid journalists who lean our way…?'(Matthew Green) – that’s the top and bottom of it. I just hope that someone is going to bring the many media points here to the attention of Leveson.

  • I would add to my earlier comments that avoiding obvious own goals should be taught to to all MP’s and Peers…


    Claiming expenses to attend a Remembrance Service when Armed Forces Minister is never going to go down well with the public and will be seized upon by any in the right wing press. This then filters through to service personnel, many risking their lives on duty, and to families including those of the recently lost. All of a sudden there is a snowball effect and another few votes hit the trash can.

    Clearly the rebuttal, which was “I attended the event as the local constituency MP. At the end of each month I submit a claim for all the journeys I have made as part of my parliamentary role.” was not great. A better option would have been, “this slipped onto my expenses in error and even though technically it is permissible I will be making an equal donation to the British Legion”.

    Was this publicity worth the £7.20 (or even the £23.40 David Heath claimed for the same reason) ????

  • As if to prove my point the original Mail article has a quote from the father of a serviceman killed in Iraq. I must say as an ex serviceman it is hard to disagree with Mr Keys:

    “‘This is disgraceful. Can our MPs not do anything off their own backs?”

    ‘There are some things they just shouldn’t claim expenses for – they should be there because they want to be. It is not as if Nick Harvey was flying half way around the world. He was travelling 16 miles up the road.”


  • (Appologies if this is a duplicate comment).

    I worry that LibDems still don’t understand the magnitude of the problem that is ahead, believing that it’s simply a communications problem, that ‘we need to work harder to get the message across’
    Well so be it. So rebut this message that Nick Clegg has delivered to the voter.
    Voters perception of LibDems is that they lied, broke promises and are not to be trusted. That they are instrumental in helping Tories to ‘shovel through’ Tory policies. That the few good LibDem policies, whilst welcome, do not make up for the bigger picture policies that people see as crippling their wellbeing.
    Worse than this they also recognise that many mainstream politicians ( let’s not be squeamish here …. Nick Clegg), once rejected by his party, will more than likely get a new shiny desk alongside the Kinnocks, on the EU gravy train. Which, incidentally, is an even better retirement package than those gold plated public pensions, and signals that We’re NOT all in this together.
    Rebut the above perception if you can.
    If you can’t, you need to accept that LibDems have screwed up big time, and that Nick Clegg has made a bonfire of the, once trusted, LibDem brand.

  • @ John Dunn
    “Voters perception of LibDems is that they lied, broke promises and are not to be trusted. ”

    You’ve just provided a very good illustration of exactly what has been said above. The reason why they have that impression is precisely because of the campaign of hate, lies and distortion on behalf of the press, which create the agenda that is then picked up by the broadcast media.

    Unfortunately, you, along with millions of other voters, have absorbed this campaign of lies through repeated exposure and are repeating this “betrayal” meme, which rarely, if ever, actually stands up to detailed examination of the facts.

    Take for example today’s news. The Regional Growth Fund, a Lib Dem idea, has been rubbished on totally spurious grounds in the national press and the lies and distortions published have then been repeated in the other media.

  • juliet solomon 11th May '12 - 12:04pm

    RC doesn’t get John Dunn’s very excellent points. Voter’s “perceptions” might be accurate. We made promises, then “we” rolled right over on both education and health, neither of which was necessary as they were not in the Coalition agreement. Never mind messaging, it is clear from this that “we” cannot be trusted, as we have, by these actions, already shown. Heaven knows how we sort that one out but we won’t if we don’t face up to the real problem.

  • The Tory brand is toxic to our party, yet on Polling day the front page of the Guardian carried a story from Nick Clegg saying he was going to reaffirm the Coalitions marriage vows. What followed was a cringe making visit to a Tractor factory where some workers wore ‘Blue’ and a fewer number wore ‘Yellow’ ones. Although we still have a lot to learn about communication, to me Nick does not get it on us keeping a professional distance from Cameron and Co. Even the Lib Dem leader of a small Council group (which sadly is becoming a majority) would behave in this way. Sadly, Nick is damaged goods with a large number of voters.

  • Matthew Huntbach 12th May '12 - 3:15pm

    John Kiely

    The Tory brand is toxic to our party, yet on Polling day the front page of the Guardian carried a story from Nick Clegg saying he was going to reaffirm the Coalitions marriage vows. What followed was a cringe making visit to a Tractor factory where some workers wore ‘Blue’ and a fewer number wore ‘Yellow’ ones.

    Indeed, this was just another example of mistake after mistake after mistake being made by those at the top end of the party. It ought to have been obvious that the very LAST thing the party needed to do given the bashing it’s getting is to make a big thing out of how it’s staying close to the Tories.

  • @ Matthew Green? ‘ It’s no accident that both Tony Blair and David Cameron sought comms advisers from the tabloid press. And Cameron’s communications problems date from the departure of Andy Coulson.’
    Many of Cameron’s problems stem from him HIRING Coulson and his cosy links with Brookes. Have you not been watching Leveson? As they say, ‘LOL’!

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